Material Culture is a centrepiece of Anthropology. It deals with the study and inquiry of objects, resources and spaces that reflect and define different societies. Drawing from the practices of social sciences and humanities—it is an interdisciplinary field that sheds light upon objects, their properties, materials, and the way they were made as well as the society and the time they were produced in. This relationship between people and things affect our understanding of production, design, and consumption

Each set in its own context with its narratives expands our knowledge of archaeology, anthropology, history, and sociology. Moreover, it speaks about their journey, their significance, transformation and movement through time.

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Material Culture.com

In the last three decades, one has realized that all objects and their material histories have become integral in answering questions about its consequence for human action. Its embedded knowledge answers questions of ownerships and its attached meanings—what are the ways in which human beings lived providing a kind of a material account of our lives. 

Early studies in archaeology focused only on documenting and categorizing the material objects of diverse human cultures. With museums placing western culture as superior in terms of evolution and sophistication, it was Karl Marx who viewed objects of consumption as evidence against exploitative colonialism and capitalist power and how that played a very big role in interpreting the accounts of ownership and exchange. 

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One of the key theorists, Arjun Appadurai in his book “The Social Life of Things’ ‘ discusses how objects have lives and meanings of their own that have often changed due to social transactions and the way they were traded or exchanged. He elucidated ideas of value that were attached to the object’s social, political and cultural processes and how these very objects would form a basis for any society’s economic and material life including their taste, desire, and trade. 

David Miller in his book, “Material Culture and Mass consumption” outlines the cultural attributes of contemporary society. From Marx to Simmel, he draws politically instilled perspectives on capitalism and consumption. He believes that objectification has regulated people’s life goals in capitalist societies and expanded industrial roles. He understands materialism as a form of cultural symbolic expression and how mass consumption is a mechanism that makes people—agents or representations of the contemporary process. 

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The Social Life of Objects by Arjun Appadurai_Amazon

Space, often overshadowed by artefacts in the studies of material culture, also is an essential tool in understanding human and social contexts. They not only communicate meanings but also facilitate movement and affect the behaviours of people occupying it. A ritualistic or a symbolic intersection with space gives an account of structural relationships of power, identity, and status. 

Buildings and Monuments were constructed not just for an external, mechanical, and utilitarian purpose but also to communicate interests effectively, and reinforce their meanings and reach. Studying space and objects within them—from materials used to their manufacturing, building processes, their function, and usage among others all give insights into human lives and activities. 

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Material Culture and Mass Consumption by David Miller_Goodreads

People make spaces into places, giving them identity with their experiences and perspectives of values and traditions leading to various territorial cultures that expand into a shared amalgamation of individuals resulting in communities and societies. Studying these spaces that were tangible constructs of human civilization helps us understand how the physical environment shapes human behaviour and vice versa. 

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Architecture communicates meanings_ArchDaily

With increasing interaction between global and local cultures, anthropologists are now responding to the complex relationship between the developed West and the developing east. With improved conversations of equality and higher GDPs of developing nations, we are seeing a more diverse material culture. 

With local design cultures adding to traditions and memories, both individual and collective—objects and spaces embody stories, myths, and multiple cultural identities. From tools, ceramics, toys to roads and cities, material culture reflects upon everything used, lived, and experienced. Consequently, examining arts and crafts from indigenous and regional communities has opened a number of niches pushing research and studies in histories of developing nations that in the past have been often disregarded and ignored. 

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Design as a tool to understand evolution_Angie’s List

This is crucial as material culture entails knowledge, a meaning system that reconstructs the traces, the legacy left by our ancestors. When humanity went from being dependent on physical labour to mental labour as a source of income it was also because of further diversification of types of work. 

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The Culture Of Design_ Erika Balcombe_Museum of Anthropology University Of British Columbia

With the evolution of writing-based (or script-based) work, we saw a more efficient way of putting ideas into motion. What was personal, became externalized. This is exactly where we are with material culture today. If the material cultures of these small gaps and niches become available to us we can build on the collective intellect of all humanity. 

Inclusion will be the next great step towards a richer material culture, a culture that is suggestive of a broader subject-object relationship that expresses and opens up our shared history.

References

“(PDF) Observing Places: Using Space And Material Culture In Qualitative Research”. 2021. Researchgate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249731303_Observing_places_Using_space_and_material_culture_in_qualitative_research.

“Material Culture – An Overview | Sciencedirect Topics”. 2021. Sciencedirect.Com. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/material-culture.

Author

Nakshi is a recent architecture graduate from BSSA, Mumbai who thrives on the visual and the literary. With a special interest in graphic design, urban design and research, Nakshi is deeply interested in culture, poetry and music. Born and raised in Mumbai, she is often found scrolling through random newsletters or searching for vinyl and erasers to add to her collection

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